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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Paul Morley on the Sex Pistols’ legendary 1976 gig in Manchester

I became the writer I wanted to be writing from a city that reacted the quickest and smartest to the lurid poetics of the Sex Pistols.

By Paul Morley

I’ve been writing for more than 40 years that the Sex Pistols playing at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 in front of 40 or so curious northerners changed my life – so there must be some truth in it. There were two Sex Pistols shows in the Manchester summer of ’76. They had been invited up north by adventure-seeking Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, who had seen them down south deliver what a review in the NME had tantalisingly promised would be more chaos than music.

At the time, if music didn’t seem enough to make sense of things, chaos was perhaps a better clue. Buzzcocks weren’t ready for the first show, which attracted so few people the Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren could be spotted outside beforehand, trying to lure passers-by inside to boost the numbers.

The myth became that of those 40-ish who did venture inside, everyone ended up being in a group (Joy Division/New Order, the Fall, Ludus, A Certain Ratio, the Smiths, Stone Roses), a designer (Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett), a photographer (Kevin Cummins), a producer (Martin Hannett), a record label exec (New Hormones, the founders of Factory), or a writer (me). The second show a few weeks later with a fully made-up Buzzcocks was sold out, and the impact of the two shows definitely helped inspire an active, radical and independent new Manchester music scene.

For some, like Mark E Smith of the Fall (RIP) this was because he saw what was causing all the fuss, and with a shrug decided what he was up to in his new group was probably better and certainly came out of stranger influences – the Pistols were the Monkees and the Stooges, the Fall were Can and the Stooges, which if nothing else led to a longer life. For others, it was a case of life-changing shock of the new, at least in terms of what the band and their exotic entourage looked like, enough to scare the grown-ups and genuinely rattle the establishment, and the sort of agitating, agitated language that their songs threw up.

It may not have been those Pistols shows that changed my life – although I did immediately cut my hair, which has stayed the same length ever since. Perhaps it was just music, the music that regularly came to grand, public and hidden underground Manchester venues, and deep into our lives through John Peel and the weekly NME, which I ended up writing for. But the Sex Pistols provided a punchline that Manchester took seriously – that music could be about more than music, that a city could be turned into something else through art and action, and through the pop music that believed in art and action.

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And it changed my life because I would become the writer I wanted to be, writing from a city that reacted the quickest and smartest to the lurid poetics of the Sex Pistols and added to its own (then fading) progressive, revolutionary history – writing not directly because of their music, but definitely inspired by the revitalising energy they chaotically and (sorry, Mark) magnificently brought to town.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special